✖️ 6 lessons for music startup founders that I learned the hard way
And: Generative music NFT deep dive; Stemplayer & consumption vs creation; Spain introduces €400 culture vouchers; Brazilian stars furious over political speech ban
I’ve spent over a decade writing about music. Much of that decade I’ve also spent in senior product roles at music streaming services. When not working in full-time roles, I’ve helped founders with strategy for their company, product or community. Below are some of the most important things I’ve learned - often the hard way as a young dreamer.
Forget about ‘disrupting’
Yes, your startup is going to reinvent the entire industry. Fix all the broken things. Cut out all the people who profit while contributing very little. Cool. But in the beginning, you need traction. To scale, you will typically need world class music involved. Telling everyone you want to disrupt them is not going to make you any friends. There are many people in the industry (that you’d like to disrupt) who think exactly the same way you do. Hone a message of partnership and of co-investing time, energy and money into solving a specific problem.
Common trap: Proudly proclaiming “I’m going to cut out the middlemen” to the decision-makers who have been hired by artists so that they can stay focused on their art.
Understand the industry
People have oversimplified ideas about how the industry actually works, as well as hopelessly outdated perspectives that date back to the early days of p2p filesharing when CD sales reigned and iTunes was just launching. This oversimplified perspective can cause you to waste a lot of time (and resources). For example, people hear “Spotify pays too little” and think “let’s build a streaming service that pays more, easy-peasy” and then start building a product before understanding who takes a cut from streaming royalties, why royalties are as low as they are, what it means to compete in this space with tech giants, how little the industry cares about platforms without an audience, how much time it takes to license music, what type of technical measures you have to comply with when handling licensed music, etc. And that is just one specific example.
Common trap: Not spending some hours to read the most recent edition of All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman before overcommitting resources.
Know whose problem you’re solving
Many startups try to solve industry problems, without understanding exactly who their customer will be. Many startups, initially pitching to fans and artists, end up pivoting into B2B-models down the line. Those are the ones that actually survive. Spend time up front to interview people. Build very basic prototypes to see if people actually use your service the way you imagine. Don’t rationalize towards the answer you want to see: if people don’t exhibit repeat-behaviour, meaning they come back to your service over and over, then you are not solving the right problem for the right person.
Common trap: Thinking you’re solving the artist’s problem, rather than that of their management, marketing team, record label, tour promoter, etc.
Speak to your customers
A lot of startup founders spend entire conferences talking to other startups. Unless you’re building something specifically for startup founders, then I’d say it’s a big waste of time. Yes, build a network of startup founders, so you can learn from each other about building a business, but don’t mistake that time as contributing to your product’s success. The #1 most important thing you can do with your time, besides hiring the right people, is spending it with (intended) customers. Learn about them, get their feedback, get them involved.
Common trap: Believing in the “build it and they will come” trope and spending weeks or months building a service while spending not even 1/10th of that time actually speaking to the people that will use it.
Speak to your partners
Most music startups have a dynamic where two groups’ problems need to be addressed. Your source of revenue may be with one group of end-users, e.g. concert-goers, but you need to spend time to understand the need of all those around them: venues, teams of touring artists, etc. The key to success with your partners will be how well you solve your customer’s problem. Consider what relationships augment that solution most effectively.
Common trap: Trying to solve a problem without understanding how partners might help you (e.g. it may be faster to license great music than to wait for independent musicians to show up & upload a sizeable catalogue).
Be honest about competition and don’t underestimate ‘switching cost’
It’s not enough to do something incrementally better. People have established routines. They’re happy with apps that get the job done and it’s typically not worth establishing a new habit for minor improvements.
Let’s say your app is the best way to discover new artists. The app has a novel interface the world has never seen before. There is simply nothing like it. Yet, there is. People have developed complex behaviours for discovering new music, this may involve concert line-ups, various social media platforms and accounts, streaming service algorithms, curated playlists, YouTube channels, etc. You are competing with all of these services for this music discovery behaviour. Understand the whole behaviour and the key differences in behaviours that may exist. Understand the trigger “I’m at work and I quickly want to find something new to listen to that’s not too demanding of my attention” and the end state “the music is playing from my WiFi-speakers and I can save new songs I like to my favourite playlist with one tap”. Can your solution achieve such an outcome? If not, is it so great that it’s worth the switching cost?
Common trap: Thinking you have no competition due to a lack of direct competitors (sidenote: they may all have struggled to gain traction and died). You are competing for behaviours. What behaviour are you targeting? Has anyone already monopolized this behaviour? How do you get in there?
The music business is a highly appealing space for startup founders. Everyone loves music. Investors like to take a risk occasionally and add a fun project to their portfolio. Unfortunately, a lot of startups I’ve seen in over a decade of writing about music tech no longer exist. While I actually value naivety, since it can lead founders to pull things off that nobody thought was possible, I hope sharing some of these common pitfalls will help more of you succeed and create more amazing tools, experiences and a blossoming artist-centric music business as a result.
P.S. Never stop dreaming. 💖
💻 Generative Music NFTs – A Deep Dive (Audiohype)
Excellent guide with an introduction to generative music, NFTs, and a look into the different approaches for generative music NFTs. A really good reference piece for your bookmarks.
🎹 STEMPLAYER & COMPRESSION (Reggie James)
“We’ve been so sedated by the ease of consumption we’ve distorted our very notion of production. The growth of the term “creator” has bastardized the very spiritual resonance of it.”
🇪🇺 EU negotiators agree new rules to rein in tech giants (Samuel Stolton)
Interesting outtakes that may affect the music business or music marketing:
“outfits such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or iMessage will have to open up and interoperate with smaller messaging platforms”
And this reads like the App Store is about to get third-party competition… Mind you, the reason why apps like Bandcamp can’t sell music directly from their app is because it goes against the App Store ToS. Have anything alluding to that in the app and you get removed from the App Store (see: Fortnite):
“mandates to allow users to install apps from third-party platforms”
🇪🇸 Spanish 18 year-olds to receive €400 of ‘culture vouchers’ each (Stuart Dredge)
“The specifics: they can spend up to €200 on live events or activities: concerts, festivals, cinema tickets, museums, literary festivals etc. Then they can spend up to €100 on physical products: vinyl, CDs and musical scores but also books, games, magazines and newspapers; and up to €100 on digital products and services, including music streaming subscriptions as well as downloads and subscriptions for audiobooks, ebooks, games etc.”
✊ Stars in Brazil voice fury as judge orders festival to ban ‘political demonstrations’ (Tom Phillips)
“Any further “ostentatious and extemporaneous” electioneering from musicians performing at Lollapalooza was forbidden, with a 50,000 reais fine (about £8,000) for any violations. In the backlash, public figures denounced what many called an act of censorship.”
I’ll be running a web3 workshop in Lisbon in 2 weeks as part of Sónar together with Kaitlyn Davies [info here]. It will get artists who are completely new to web3 familiar with the basics of web3 and we’ll create a collection of art together, forever connecting the community of this workshop by minting this collection onto an eco-friendly blockchain (Polygon). If you have a Sónar+D ticket in hand and have time on Saturday morning (April 9) fill out this form. All levels welcome.
Being born and raised in the birth country of gabber, I’ve always loved hardcore. I also developed a soft spot for hyperpop since the early days of PC Music. I’m stoked to see that some of the world’s best producers, hyperpop pioneers, are leaning into the former genre. Danny L Harle did amazing work last year with his Harlecore album and has now released a follow-up remix release featuring work by VTSS, Flume, Lil Texas, Hixxy, Tommy Cash and many more. I want to highlight the version of On A Mountain by ascendent vierge, who are one of the groups I most believe in.
Shout out to the ever-innovative s1m0nc3ll0 for the work on the visualizer video.